A new traffic study of the notorious blinker light intersection in Oak Bluffs could push selectmen one step closer to putting up the Island's first traffic light.
The 40-page study concluded that in terms of traffic volume alone, the intersection warrants a traffic signal. The intersection is dangerous, and the best long-term solution is a full-fledged traffic light, according to the report issued two weeks ago by MS Transportation Systems Inc. in Natick.
In the meantime, the study recommends a host of short-term solutions such as installing rumble strips and turning lanes. But the traffic signal solution already has the backing of police and at least some selectmen who have plowed through the thick document.
"We might have to hold our noses and get a traffic signal because public safety demands it," said selectman Ken Rusczyk. And selectman Roger Wey, an outspoken proponent of a traffic signal, said, "Nobody wants it, but there's got to be a stoplight there."
With a mountain of data, the study depicts an intersection that is simply overloaded and a hazard to motorists, especially ones on the Barnes and Airport roads trying to cross or merge with traffic on the highway from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven.
Indeed, the majority of accidents there resulted when motorists from the so-called minor streets failed to yield to the traffic on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Accident rates are climbing - 50 per cent a year for the last three years. Of the 18 accidents in that time period, 17 were blamed on the problems with the intersection - overcrowding, poor sight lines and inadequate signage that does little to warn motorists to slow down.
Speed data found that most cars on the highway are going at least 40 miles per hour even though the posted speed limit is 35. Cars coming from Vineyard Haven tend to speed even more, at upwards of 44 miles per hour on average, according to the study.
Mr. Wey said the three beacons with flashing yellow lights simply don't do enough to slow drivers, particularly on the approach from Vineyard Haven, which dips down a hill before rising again. "If you're coming up the hill, before you know it, you're right on the lights," said Mr. Wey.
Besides speed, the study quantified the sheer volume of traffic at the intersection. Traffic engineers found that peak summer hours fell in the late morning and late afternoon. In one hour, traffic counters clicked off a total of 1,485 cars going through the intersection. With further development and growth on the Island, the study concluded that the "intersection will continue to deteriorate." Projected traffic numbers could rise to 1,800 cars an hour in the next decade, according to the report.
"It's like being on the corner of Arlington and Charles streets in Boston," said Mr. Rusczyk. "And if they expand Mahoney's or build a youth tennis center, don't tell me there won't be more traffic there."
The study pointed to the possibility of such changes while also accounting for Island traffic habits - understanding, for example, that some drivers opt for the longer drive down Airport Road just to avoid the legendary congestion of Upper Main street in Edgartown. Similarly, the study also considered that the new golf course in Edgartown could increase traffic at the blinker.
Selectmen have yet to discuss the new study in a public meeting, but it is clear they are frustrated that it took planners so long to complete it, leaving them little time to implement any of the recommendations before summer. The report was commissioned on Sept. 13 with a Dec. 31 deadline. A complete draft copy didn't arrive until late March. "It's almost summer again, and we've got the same situation with nothing done," said Mr. Wey. "It makes everyone look like a fool."
The senior engineer in charge of the study, Bill Scully, told the Gazette that bad weather last fall held up some of the field studies.
Now, selectmen are left wondering exactly which, if any, of the study's recommendations, to put into effect before summer. The biggest stumbling block could be money. Most of the ideas from the engineers came with a price, and the town has just tapped its reserves in an attempt to balance next year's budget. Plus, Boston's central artery overhaul - the Big Dig - has siphoned off much of the state funding for transportation projects.
As immediate remedies, the report urged replacing the flashing beacons with overhead flashing lights. The study found that the beacons were set too low and easily missed by motorists. Lights suspended from a mast arm or span wire would cost about $25,000 to install and could be easily upgraded to a full traffic signal.
Rumble strips on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, both westbound and eastbound, would do a better job of alerting motorists and slowing them down. They are not cheap either, costing about $9,000 to install.
The study also called for relocating the bike path crossing lane further down Airport Road by about 260 feet. The cost estimate with new signs and extended paths would be about $7,000. Improved sight lines from the side roads could be achieved simply by moving the stop line closer to the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. This would reduce both distance and the time it takes a car to get through the intersection, according to the report.
Beyond the immediate recommendations, the study proposes turning lanes as the preferred short-term solution. "It would have a substantial effect on reducing delays for a certain group of people," said Mr. Scully. Extra lanes, he said, would cut down the line of cars waiting on Barnes and Airport roads.
He downplayed the suggestion that more lanes could interfere with sight lines of motorists. The report also concluded that this interim measure would help lay the groundwork for a more permanent solution in the future - a traffic signal. But as simple as turning lanes may sound, they would cost between $40,000 and $50,000 to construct. Mr. Wey was skeptical about turning lanes, and he was even more strongly opposed to the idea of a round-about, or rotary.
"You take your life in your hands on a rotary, especially if you've never encountered one," he said.
The cost of a round-about would be roughly $150,000, according to the report, and while it would be cheaper to maintain than a traffic signal, it would end up delaying traffic on Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road more than a traffic light.
A traffic signal could cost up to $170,000 to construct, but Mr. Scully noted that it could be more flexible than a rotary, and easy to change on a seasonal basis.
Mr. Scully's report acknowledges there could be some resistance to a traffic signal. But his study points more toward viewing the blinker intersection as "a major safety problem" and not a bastion of quaint Island life.
"There are a lot of people who are emotional, who want to be in a place where they can tell people, "There are no traffic lights here,' " said Mr. Rusczyk. "But you can't say that the Vineyard's rural character is defined at that intersection. The Vineyard is changing, and you have to change with it."
State police Sgt. Neal Maciel said that both he and Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter began pushing for a traffic light several years ago. Having seen the accidents there, he has little sympathy for cultural objections. "People who think it will ruin the image of the Island ought to try assisting the wounded in different accidents there," he said. "I was born and raised here, and if a traffic light will save lives, I'm all for it."